What’s the function of a conjunction? Where does a bill sit? And why is three such a magic number? If you grew up any time after 1973, these questions elicit a soundtrack of earworms that you hummed quietly to yourself as you poured over your grammar, civics, and algebra exams. Schoolhouse Rock typifies a genre of media that has been praised and pilloried since its name was coined some half a century ago – edutainment. Walt Disney, when asked why he didn’t turn his prodigious ability to capture audiences to making educational content reminded the questioner that he was an entertainer and, “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than try to educate people and hope they were entertained.” Simply put, edutainment is packaging information, from multiplication tables to government emergency response protocols, into entertainment media like film, music, and even themed experiences with the goal of teaching an audience. But creating learning-driven entertainment forces a more fundamental question: What does it mean to learn?
Schoolhouse Rock’s didactic ditties continue to echo in our memories decades later as helpful, albeit annoying, mnemonics. They helped us memorize, but did they help us learn? Herein lies a potential flaw in the edutainment genre – the focus on the packaging and recapitulation of facts, figures, and numbers without leaving a lasting impression on our connection to and understanding of a subject. At IDEAS, we’ve spent over two decades creating learning-driven experiences for clients as diverse as zoos, aquariums, museums, hospitals, consulting firms, and government agencies. But our approach has always utilized a fundamental teaching tactic known to great teachers everywhere – storytelling.
Learning, as a process, parallels one of the most fundamental of human narrative traditions – the hero’s journey. The learner starts off in a place of comfortable ignorance until the introduction of new information calls them to know more. While they may be resistant to learning, they eventually set forth into the unknown, often with the help of a teacher or “guide” whose role it is to challenge their existing beliefs and assumptions. Ultimately the learner emerges more enlightened by overcoming a challenge through mastery of new skills and knowledge and integrating it into their understanding of the world. Put more concisely: learning is an adventure. Emotion is key. When you treat learners like heroes, they care about the journey they are taking, and an audience that cares about what you have to say is always the easiest to impact.
Themed entertainment has always been about taking people on a journey and transforming them through a lived experience. At IDEAS, we’ve had the opportunity to experiment with immersive storytelling in both traditional and novel spaces on scales that range from singular interactive elements to full-blown exhibits and entirely new experiences. Along the way, we’ve refined our approach to taking guests on transformative learning journeys that embed them in the subject matter, give them a palpable sense of agency, and make the content look, sound, and most importantly, feel appealing and personally relevant to them.
We have replaced the concept of “edutainment” or “entertainment education” with what we call StoryLearn™, our enhanced version of the ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation) instructional design model, driven and enriched by the power of storytelling. In addition to its instructional soundness in practice, our StoryLearn™ process integrates well with the phases of work required for large, content-heavy, and broad-reach projects. The process is rigorous and highly iterative, using a spiral design approach to continually balance learning objectives and information with audience engagement and marry our team’s design efforts with our client’s expertise. Beginning with rigorous learner, context, content and metrics analysis, the project moves through design, production, and evaluation stages to assure integrity.
As an example, we recently designed a new exhibit for The Florida Aquarium focused on animal adaptation. At the outset of the project, we were given a list of animals that would be featured in the exhibit, a very tight schedule, and a target budget. A collaborative StoryJam™ with The Florida Aquarium team allowed us to capture both the basic information that guests should know and the feeling they should carry with them by the time they leave for the day. Those desired outcomes, along with branded engagement factors, became the plot points that we then connected through a compelling narrative. We started with adaptation, namely: what it is, how it happens, and how it shows up in physical traits or manifests as animal behaviors. This gave us the basic arc of our guest journey and informed how we laid out story points across the exhibit footprint. Next, we turned to our animals and, working alongside The Florida Aquarium’s animal team, determined which species best supported each story point.
We then worked with the exhibit’s size and guest circulation constraints to ensure that once begun, the story could be effectively told by moving through the experience non-sequentially!
Translating the learning goals into a narrative and the narrative into a spatial plan helped our team understand the journey our guests needed to take to connect them with the content. This brought us back to the animals, the “stars” of our show as we started to develop specific exhibit elements. Whether it’s a periscope that allows guests to see the world through a four-eyed fish or an interactive projection globe that lets them explore how extreme environments shape animal behaviors, each immersive element was crafted to form a more personal connection with the natural world and move guests along their journey.
In today’s over-teched culture, it’s critical to avoid another common mistake – elevating the medium above the message. Effective exhibits find ways to transcend a traditional stop-and-stare experience, offering unique, typically hands-on ways to engage guests in the content. When we were tasked with re-inventing the guest experience for the Oasis at the Port of Cartagena, Colombia, our entire focus was on enabling cruise passengers with a limited time ashore to have personal encounters with animals they would never have a chance to engage elsewhere. The learning objective was about the importance of species preservation, conservation, and understanding why species diversity matters.
To make sure we got this right, we teamed with a world-class zoological expert Chuck Tompkins former VP and Curator of Zoological Operations of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. Tompkins observed: “In Cartagena, we had a chance to introduce guests to animals in a truly natural habitat. What worked was a storyline that made the Oasis the animal’s “village” to which the human guests were invited for a visit. Whether guests chose to wander and engage on their own or be hosted by a knowledgeable guide, every person left with a new appreciation for these remarkable species. One important hallmark of an effective learning-driven experience is when a guest doesn’t realize how much more they know and care until after they leave.”
For the reimagining of Miami’s historic Jungle Island animal park, IDEAS had the opportunity to rethink animal presentations through a new story-driven stage show. We started by exploring how to translate the traditional format of an animal show – essentially, just a series of animals and guest interaction moments – into an emotional hero’s journey during which guests learn and grow along the way. Our team came up with a show that told the story of the mutual responsibility all species in the animal kingdom (including humans) have in the welfare of one another.
The featured species each represented different tenets of how humans can act as responsible “guardians of the jungle”. Animal interaction moments are framed as trials that test courage and challenge guests to step outside their comfort zone to learn about a new species all in pursuit of helping the show’s protagonist (a would-be explorer) discover the true treasures of nature. Those brave enough to volunteer become avatars for the rest of audience, and act as vehicles that advance the tale to a triumphant conclusion in which every guest can feel a sense of accomplishment in what they’ve learned along with a sense of urgency to steward that knowledge when they return home. “Across the board at Jungle Island the team adopted a clear design principle.” Jay Tacey, President of Zoo Solutions was IDEAS’ zoological expert on the project and noted “Whether it was a habitat, media content or in this case a live presentation, animal well-being and a fact-forward approach were always our starting points. It’s amazing how quickly guests develop a deep level of understanding when they’re part of the story and not simply passive observers.”
A great engagement doesn’t stop at the exit. Effective after-action activations ask guests to put their new knowledge to the test or even build upon it. One of the most robust examples of this comes from Flight Works Alabama, a hands-on, interactive exhibit that welcomes guests into the world of Airbus aircraft manufacturing. The exhibit itself takes guests on the journey of an Airbus A320 from the drawing board through its first flight, weaving them through the manufacturing processes and testing protocols that finally get the plane airborne. While the exhibit is geared largely toward a middle school audience, its after-action opportunities can have lifelong impacts through a full roster of camps, career-building workshops, and certification courses that allow guests to build very basic knowledge they learned in the exhibit into a career in aircraft manufacturing. While for some, the exhibit serves as a complete story arc, for others it is perhaps only the lightbulb moment that begins a decades-long story in the aerospace industry. It is a powerful reminder that learning-driven experiences can truly transform lives when they tap into the right emotions, impacting them long after those edutaining earworms about adverbs and anatomy have faded from memory.
A learning-driven experience with a defined story-arc realized through meaningful, well-integrated engagement has redefined the category called edutainment. But the best of the best often find a way to push the envelope by continuing to transform audiences after one visit comes to an end and plans for the next one to begin. Why Broccoli Ice Cream? It’s simple. Like new learning, broccoli is nutritious and good for you, and, like great entertainment, ice cream is a delightful treat. Our recipe is to chop the broccoli up and swirl it into the ice cream creating a tasty offering rich in nutrition for the mind and heart.